Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Beatles — Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Of all the Beatles' albums acknowledged as masterpieces (which is almost all of them), perhaps none have suffered more from revisionist evaluation than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hears Club Band. Many point to its half-assed concept, which only fully applies to three songs (one of which is a reprise of the first tune), as a detriment, or to its loopy eclecticism. The most common complaint I hear is that it simply "doesn't have good songs," which in fairness is a good reason for disliking an album.

I myself came to Sgt. Pepper relatively late precisely because of lack of, apart from the first two tracks, any readily accessible hits. My first exposure to the band came from carpooling as a kid with a friend whose dad was a massive Beatlemaniac (in one of life's little perfect moments, their surname was McCartney), but he tended to play singles and standout tracks, and I can't remember ever listening to anything off of this album past the first two songs and the odd spinning of "Getting Better" or "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Years later, I was standing, bored, in an antique shop when I stumbled across a collector's issue of Rolling Stone that contained their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Being 14 and clueless about music, I picked it up to help guiding me in filling my brand new iPod, and the very first entry in their list was Sgt. Pepper. Now, that issue, supposedly a collector's item, is tattered and bent, missing its cover -- come to think of it, it's a nice visual metaphor of the evolutionary arc of my opinion of Rolling Stone magazine -- and I too found myself on the side of, "Where's all the hits?" Looking back, however, if Sgt. Pepper is not the greatest album of all time, or even the band's zenith, it is as much an ambitious leap as anything that the band ever crafted.

Paul concocted the Sgt. Pepper conceit to essentially allow the band to tour without touring. They could play as this fictional group, expanding upon the film clips they sent in to The Ed Sullivan Show to continue promoting the group in America. At its core, the fictitious band was a sort of lounge act, 20 years past its prime, looking to get back on the horse even as McCartney was contemplating reversing the band's decision to cease touring. Paul dresses up Ringo as the leader, Billy Shears, to sing the contemplative and personal "With a Little Help From My Friends." Building upon the personal lyrics of his tracks on Revolver, the song poses conversational yet probing questions through its harmony vocals, answered with plain honesty by Ringo's lead.

That frankness, that questioning of life, ultimately emerges from the aborted theatrical concept into a more thematic album. Paul's "When I'm Sixty-Four" is a perfect example: dismissed for its music hall bounce, it encapsulates the underlying thrust of the album as well as any of the more lauded tunes. At a time when Pete Townshend was penning "I hope I die before I get old" and Mick Jagger couldn't see himself playing "Satisfaction" at 45, here was a pop group committing the ultimate sin and looking forward to old age. His goofy acceptance of mundane activities such as scrimping and saving to rent a cottage for the summer is counterbalanced the pointedly honest reminder "You'll be older too."

He matches that honesty with the bouncy "Getting Better," in which he directly addresses some of the group's previous lyrical occupations. Here, the rocker has moved past teenage rebellion, as well as the jealous relationships that defined Lennon's romantic lyrics, moving us along into wiser adulthood with that poppy line "It's getting better all the time." However, Lennon adds a cheeky, subversive element to this maturation with the rejoinder "It can't get no worse," crediting an increased serenity not simply in age but an escape from the pressures the band suffered. Paul's growth never ceases to amaze me as I go through these albums sequentially, and I initially credited the witty, wordplay-filled "Fixing a Hole" to the more cunning Lennon, only to discover that McCartney was being just as clever as John.

If the Beatles were the best-timed band in music history, then Sgt. Pepper must be the best single piece of evidence to prove it. Released on June 1, 1967, it marked the unofficial start of the Summer of Love, with its psychedelic tones and album cover to match. But I feel that the psychedelic aspect of the album has been somewhat overstated; yes, Lennon's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is pure acidic revelry -- can you believe they even tried to deny that the song was about LSD until Paul finally put it to rest in '04?" -- and "Within You Without You" only furthers Harrison's preoccupations with Indian classical -- the sound of the sitar has become a stereotypically necessity in any film involving a drug trip -- and shows him thoroughly delving into Hindu teaching, but what makes Sgt. Pepper truly remarkable is its off-the-wall, "anything goes" approach to composition.

The music hall sound of "When I'm Sixty-Four" looks tame compared to Lennon's out-there exercise "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" Where McCartney's number played like a good vaudevillian tune, Lennon's is a mad rock 'n' roll circus, a jumbled mess only just sorted out by George Martin into some inexplicably enjoyable whole. "Lovely Rita," the most straightforward song on the album, is nevertheless rendered odd through its lyrics, the story of crushing on a female traffic warden. Hey, inspiration comes from all places, which certainly explains how John could write "Good Morning Good Morning" inspired by a jingle for Corn Flakes, only to turn it into one of his usual reflective songs, complete with a brass and sax backup.

Once again, the album's innovation, originality and quality can be most evidently seen in a song each by Lennon and McCartney. "She's Leaving Home," once considered McCartney's biggest triumph on the album, has since slid in the public perception, to the point that I rarely find it mentioned in any list of the band's finest moments -- in their elongated entry for the album, Rolling Stone didn't even reference it in passing. Yet this is, quite possibly, Paul McCartney's greatest track. Almost completely a piece of chamber music, "She's Leaving Home" starts with the bright plucking of a harp as a young girl prepares to run away from her parents, leaving behind a note to inform them. Then, the string section comes in with a more haunting line, and McCartney does not follow the girl in a story of liberation but lingers on the home and the parents' reaction. Some may see it as melodramatic, but this song, more than "Yesterday," more than "Eleanor Rigby," displays his ability to capture profound beauty in less than five minutes. He considers the pain that rebellion and running away can have on the parents, but there is also the suggestion that the mother and father don't understand what they've done at all; often, they refer to giving her whatever she wanted, only once acknowledging that perhaps "Fun," or happiness, "is the one thing money can't buy." Too, by remaining with the family and keeping this haunting tone, Paul indirectly makes us wonder if the girl in question will find happiness in her emancipation. I don't think I'd ever even listened to this song before now, and I'm tempted to call it the second greatest Beatles song ever written.

I say second greatest, because Sgt. Pepper happens to contain their magnum opus, and one of the three best rock songs ever recorded, Lennon's "A Day in the Life." After an album filled with some haunting, but mostly positive, reflections on everyday life and mortality, Lennon closes the album with a disturbing, ponderous epic, complete with full orchestration and a massive musical break in the middle written by Paul. Its spacey, chilling lyrics take snippets from new stories Lennon read and joins them into some oblique rumination on life, only to dump into McCartney's boyish memory, in which an unfortunate commuter lapses into a reverie. I suppose that his thoughts, while drifting off in his perfunctory urban bustle, consist of Lennon's considerably darker bits. Three years earlier, the Beatles announced their true artistic arrival with the clanging opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night," and here they end the proceedings on that epic E-major chord, stretched and warped for nearly a minute through various knob-twiddling. Where that earlier chord signaled the growth of the band, the final note of "A Day in the Life" demonstrates that the band are now true artists, with nothing left to prove to their critics.

That, of course, is obvious throughout the rest of the album. Their ruminations on life, its mundanity and its pains, are not the marks of bubblegum chart toppers but of introspective, searching artists. The thematic shift to tackling life as a whole is borne out in that ambitious, much-beloved cover: Revolver displayed the group looking inward for inspiration (and finding it), but the sea of cut-out pop culture figures surrounding the band in the cover photo for Sgt. Pepper show the band immersing themselves in all they experience even as they comfortably place themselves into such a pantheon. In retrospect, the abandoned Sgt. Pepper conceit plays into the rest of the album not only because the aged fictional group too questioned their relevancy in a world that moved on without them but that they represented what fate had in store for people like the Beatles at the time. Beatlemania was on the wane, thanks to their lack of touring, (to a small extent) that dust-up over the "bigger than Jesus" remark, and just the simple shift of public tastes. Despite their remarkable evolution, many still looked to them as the "Fab Four" and not musicians, and they could easily end up like their doppelgangers, washed up and hoping to trade in on nostalgia factor decades after fading away. With this album, they ensured that they'd never be thought of as just as fad.

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